An early October blizzard that dumped more than 4 feet of snow and killed thousands of cattle in western South Dakota is having a staggering effect on the regional economy.
Officials estimate the potential economic impact at an estimated $1.7 billion. About $300,000 has been donated to a private relief fund set up in the wake of the storm. But so far, there has been no federal aid because the government program to help ranchers recover livestock losses expired in the 2008 Farm Bill. And it remains to be seen if the Livestock Indemnity Program will be extended retroactively.
This week though, a bipartisan conference committee began the arduous the task of finding a compromise between radically different House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill entered a phase not seen in years this week, as the gavel fell to open the conference committee.
The 41-members come from both chambers and spent most of the initial session delivering prepared remarks about their hopes for the Farm Bill.
Congressman Frank Lucas is chairing the bipartisan conference committee and the Oklahoma Republican renewed his calls for completion of the task at hand.
Rep. Frank Lucas, R - Oklahoma: “It took us years to get here, but we are here. It may take days and weeks, perhaps, to finish crafting what we’ll call the 2013 farm bill in popular discussion at the coffee shops. But we can do it, we have to do it.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D – Michigan: “There are 16 million men and women whose jobs rely on the strength of agriculture. They’re counting on us working together in good faith and get the farm bill done. And I’m confident we won’t let them down.”
Many lawmakers called for reforms in domestic farm policy.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D – Vermont: “We assured a farm bill that supports nation’s farmers, rural communities, alleviates hunger, reforms commodity programs, ends trade distortion policy, creates jobs and saves taxpayers $24 billion dollars, not bad.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, R – Kansas: “We have heard consistently from producers in all regions from Ann Arbor, MI to Wichita, KS, that crop Insurance is their #1 priority. Our producers are willing to put their own skin in the game to protect themselves from disaster.”
Many conferees, however, tip-toed around the elephant in the room – the food assistance portion of the bill.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP has become a target for House Republicans looking to reduce spending.
Currently, more than 47 million Americans receive some form of nutritional assistance from the government. The Senate version would cut $4 billion from the nutrition programs. But House lawmakers want reductions of nearly $40 billion.
And with one in seven Americans now receiving benefits, the cost to taxpayers has more than doubled since 2008 to more than $80 billion per year
Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R – TX: 1421 “Why does the safety net need reform? Because people are getting tangled up and stuck in it. The House addresses this by ending benefits for individuals that quite honestly, don’t qualify for them. Allows us to save billions of dollars without cutting assistance for the families who are actually in need. This isn’t about weakening nutrition assistance, but rather about making the program sustainable over the long-term.”
During the nearly five years of working on the legislation, Mother Nature has left some producers in a few sticky wickets --- thus leaving them vulnerable.
Rep. Frank Lucas, R - Oklahoma: “And if the drought in the Midwest last year wasn’t a clear enough reminder about the tools that are necessary when it comes to agricultural production then most assuredly the blizzard of not many weeks ago, that wreaked so much havoc across the Dakota’s stand as a solemn reminder.”
Also in play is the geographic make-up of the committee. Senate membership comes mostly from corn and soybean producing states, while House members represent more southern agricultural interests.
Given the strong partisan divide in Washington these days, just getting to conference is considered a major landmark for the farm bill. But Congressman Collin Peterson of Minnesota says it is long past time to deliver a farm bill.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D – Minnesota: “I believe if the conference committee is left alone and allowed to do our work, we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill. I think we have a good group of conferees and I know that everyone is committed to finishing the job. So, we’ve been working on this bill so long, we’re actually at the point where most of the staff work has been done. And it really is for the members to start making compromises necessary to put this bill together and so it can be defended and clearly explained to colleagues and to the general public.”